Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Boys In The Boat

In just a few short weeks, I’ll be back in class teaching public relations students about the art and science of writing for both traditional and digital media. As per my custom, I typically ask students the following question on the first day of class: “Which books did you read over the course of the summer? And why?”

Sadly, only a smattering of students raise their hands, which -- as a writing instructor -- is disappointing, to say the least. So when they ask me the secret to becoming better writers, I tell them to “read. And read a lot.” Just about everything qualifies as reading: books, magazines, periodicals, blogs and much more.

Sure, student scribes need to also pay attention to the technical aspects of good writing: stripping every sentence to its bare components, eliminating every word that serves no function and every passive verb that leaves the reader wondering who is doing what, not to mention a solid understanding of basic grammar and style.

To be a really good writer, however, students should read to grasp the art of language and appreciate the finer points of words. Nothing inspires a writer like reading someone else’s words. While enhancing vocabulary, reading also helps writers learn how to create narrative and develop characters, maintain tension and write dialogue.

So in my continuing efforts to practice what I preach, I tend to read a lot, particularly in the summer when, not coincidentally, I am writing more. Of the nearly two dozen books I’ve consumed over the last three months, a clear winner has emerged: The Boys In The Boat, a nonfiction account of the 1936 U.S. men’s eight-oar rowing team.

Written by Daniel James Brown, The Boys In The Boat tells the story of the University of Washington’s quest for an Olympic gold medal, a team (above) comprised of the sons of loggers, shipyard workers and farmers from Sequim to Spokane that literally transformed the sport while captivating millions of Americans in the process.

The protagonist in this New York Times bestseller is Joe Rantz, (above, right) a young man with no family and no prospects who rows primarily to repair his shattered self-image and find a place he can call home. The crew is directed by an enigmatic coach and mentored by an eccentric but nonetheless visionary British boat builder.

The crew shows what's possible when everyone is literally pulling together for a common cause, an improbable story of nine working class boys who defeat their elite rivals from eastern universities and finally, the German crew (below) in the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin. Here are a few excerpts from The Boys In The Boat.

On college life at the University of Washington: “The young men and women sat in separate groups. The men wore pressed slacks and freshly shined oxfords and cardigan sweaters. As they ate, they talked earnestly about classes (and) about the big upcoming football game with the University of Oregon.”

On Hitler's Germany: “Hitler had not originally wanted to host the games at all. Almost everything about the idea, in fact, had offended him. The year before, he had damned the games as the invention of Jews and Freemasons. But in the eight months since he had come to power in January, Hitler had begun to change his mind.”

On making varsity crew: “It’s not a question of whether you will hurt; it’s a question of what you will do and how well you will do it, while pain has her wanton way with you. By Christmas break, most would have given up, perhaps to play something less physically and intellectually challenging, like football.”

On Joe’s abandonment by his own family and subsequent self-determination: “It takes energy to get angry. It eats you up inside. I can’t waste my energy like that. When (my family) left, it took everything I had in me just to survive. Now I have to stay focused. I’ve just gotta take care of it myself.”

On the popularity of the sport in that day: “Nearly 80,000 Seattleites, far more than Washington’s football stadium could hold, had taken an early start to a gorgeous weekend and come out to watch the races” between the University of Washington and the University of California, Berkeley, winners of Olympic gold in 1928 and 1932.

On synchronicity: “It was maddeningly difficult, as if eight men standing on a floating log that threatened to roll over whenever they moved had to hit eight golf balls at exactly the same moment, with exactly the same amount of force, directing the ball to exactly the same point on a green, over and over, every two or three seconds.”

The book is an inspiring story of the “can-do” spirit instilled in the University of Washington crew. They defied the odds and rose from obscurity to fame in the middle of The Depression Years to capture the gold medal as the clouds of war developed in Europe and beyond. An excellent read, and highly recommended, even for the uninitiated.


randy said...

Even for Duck fans? !

Gonzo said...

Especially for Duck fans....